The Dire State of America's Mental Health System

Public policy is failing people with mental health issues.

Over the past few years, severe mental illness has garnered a lot of public attention, especially as many of the mass murderers in recent memory have had some sort of mental health condition. In spite of that, little is being done on the policy-side of things to address this crisis. Treating the problem will be a complex and difficult process, but there are things that lawmakers can do to help the estimated 10+ million Americans with serious mental illness.

The Heritage Foundation recently held a panel discussion where several scholars provided their perspective on how to address the problem. The first to speak was Dr. Sally Stael, a D.C.-based psychiatrist who emphasized the fact that there is an important difference between a mental illness and a mental health concern.

She said, for example, that someone who has “mood swings” often does not pose the same potential dangers as a manic person whose delusions could lead to violent and erratic behavior.

Severe mental illness is most typically schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, Satel noted, but can include severe instances of other diseases and behaviors.

Understanding that is important, as not all types of mental health issues are the same and require different types of treatment. Getting them that treatment, when needed, is the next step. But there is often a barrier to getting treatment in our society: stigmatization. As DJ Jaffe, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org, explains, many organizations are trying to overcome that barrier to treatment.

That has distracted much-needed policy attention from those with severe mental illness, he argued, adding that 35 percent of the most seriously mentally ill never receive treatment. That includes the 40,000 incarcerated people and 140,000 homeless people with a serious mental illness.

Efforts that do exist are poorly targeted, too: Though suicide prevention programs typically target young people, Jaffe says that 90 percent of those who take their own lives are adults.

Also concerning is the fact that there is little in terms of medicinal treatment for those with mental illnesses. Oftentimes, treatments just deal with the symptoms, and not with the root cause. Andrew Sperling, director of legislative and policy advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, wants to see more research from the pharmaceutical industry into new drugs to help patients.

John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation reminded the audience that many times those with severe mental illnesses are a legitimate threat to themselves and to others, especially if they self-medicate with alcohol or other substitutes, which greatly increases the risk of violence.

“Two-thirds of all gun-related deaths are people who commit suicide,” Malcolm said. “And it’s been estimated that 10 percent of gun-related violence and 60 percent or more of mass shooters are suffering from a severe mental illness.”

The panelists concluded their discussion by emphasizing the need to make the public aware about the extent of the problem, and to get rid of the stigma surrounding mental health issues. When the public, and policymakers, better understand the nature of the problem, it will be easier to enact workable solutions.

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